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Walter Payton bio paints bittersweet portrait of a deep, good man

“As I did more research no new ground was covered. I found th‘legend Walter Payton’ can be summed up two

“As I did more research, no new ground was covered. I found that the ‘legend of Walter Payton’ can be summed up in two ways: ‘Great running back’ and ‘Prankster.’ I thought, there has to be more to this person," said author Jeff Pearlman.

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Updated: December 2, 2011 2:12PM

We have our memories of Walter Payton, most of them so grand, they defy the limits of humanity.

Ol’ Sweetness was such a great football player, so fierce yet childlike, so mischievous yet epic — and he died so young — that it seems he has always been a bronze statue looming over Lake Michigan, stiff arm out, ball held like a grapefruit, blessing the Bears and forgiving our gridiron sins.

But there is no statue of Walter in our town, though there should be. And longtime sportswriter Jeff Pearlman wondered for years: Who really is this man?

‘‘He was such an icon, and yet I knew nothing about him,’’ Pearlman said when we talked Wednesday. ‘‘I read his autobiography with Don Yaeger, Never Die Easy, and that was my reference on Walter Payton.

‘‘As I did more research, no new ground was covered. I found that the ‘legend of Walter Payton’ can be summed up in two ways: ‘Great running back’ and ‘Prankster.’ I thought, there has to be more to this person.’’

And Pearlman, who writes sports books for a living, found more. Yes, he did. Some of it is old news, some of it is repackaged news, but a whole lot of it is stuff he uncovered by doing gumshoe research, and it may be more than worshipful Payton fans want to know.

In his new book, Sweetness : The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton, which was excerpted and used as the cover story in this week’s Sports Illustrated with the title, ‘‘Walter Payton, The Hero No One Knew,’’ Pearlman describes Payton’s depression, thoughts of suicide, infidelity and drug use. Those drugs, Pearlman writes, were used sometimes for pleasure, but mainly for the physical pain Payton felt after retiring from the NFL in 1987 as the league’s leading rusher.

But there was also emotional and psychological pain that Payton felt from no longer being part of the one thing he was best at.

‘‘Payton found himself burdened by a realization that had struck thousands of ex-athletes before him: I am bored out of my mind,’’ Pearlman writes. ‘‘When strangers asked, he talked about how thrilled he was to be free of the burdens of football. . . . The words were pure fantasy. He would miss it desperately. ‘He went from an abnormal existence as an athlete to a normal one,’ says [daughter] Brittney, now 26. ‘How does anyone do that?’ ’’

The point here might be that we — sports fans and people with the issues life brings — don’t care and possibly don’t even want to know.

Mike Ditka, Payton’s Bears Super Bowl coach, was disgusted when I asked him what he thought of the excerpts.

‘‘It’s pathetic, and I don’t want to talk about it,’’ Da Coach snarled.

One of Payton’s teammates, who asked not to be identified, also was less than thrilled with the revelations but not angry, just depressed.

‘‘He certainly was enigmatic,’’ the player said. ‘‘And the beating he took was astounding. He’d often be covered in ice bags after games.’’

Indeed, this reporter often watched as Payton sniffed ammonia ampules on the sideline the way most people breathe air. Sometimes those crushed ampules helped him recover from what seemed like concussions received moments before on tremendous collisions.

‘‘Clyde Emrich, our strength coach, always wanted to get data on how strong Walter was,” the player said. “But he never did any of it ‘in person.’ He didn’t like to be pinned down. But one night at Ferry Hall, where we stayed during camp in Lake Forest, he sneaked downstairs and did military presses with 210 pounds, all there was — an incredible amount.’’

The player had paused.

‘‘Still, the Walter I want to recall is the man writing poetry and laughing, the fun-loving guy.’’

A deep person

Pearlman understands.

‘‘I’ve seen the fan reactions,’’ he said. ‘‘And they make me unhappy — people thinking, ‘Who is this guy coming in and writing about our hero?’ But I want to say, Read the book! They took 20 pages of his darkest period for the excerpt. The book is 450 pages long. He had depth, he was unique. I mean, he desegregated Columbia, Miss. He was a good person. I wrote about Roger Clemens in my last book, and it was not a satisfying experience. There was no depth to him.

‘‘Walter had depth; he was somebody who actually thought about something.’’

Pearlman brought up two matters that he thinks prove how unfinished and incorrect the common portrait of Payton is.

‘‘When he died, the Sun-Times and the Tribune — everybody — wrote in the obituaries that he was 45. He was not. He was 46. He had taken a year off his age way back because he thought that might make him a better Heisman Trophy candidate.’’

I looked it up. ‘‘Born July 25, 1954.’’ That’s still what all the research says.

Nickname’s origin

‘‘And nobody even knows where the nickname ‘Sweetness’ came from. Do you?’’ Pearlman asked.

I thought. I didn’t. Something about being a sweet player or having a sweet forearm?

‘‘No, in practicing for the 1975 All-Star Game, he said to Neal Colzie, an Ohio State cornerback, ‘Your sweetness is your weakness!’ and then he ran by him.’’

Don Pierson, the retired NFL writer who still might be the most respected pro writer in Chicago history, helped fact-check the book.

‘‘I’d say about 100 percent of that was what happened on Sunday afternoon,’’ Pierson said. ‘‘Although I wasn’t surprised by anything Jeff wrote, I don’t think it changes my opinion of Walter at all. I’ve never thought anything football players do off the field is any more interesting than what anybody else does. The book, as a whole, is pretty positive.’’

Maybe we should just read it.

And remember Walter was a man.

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